As the most spectacular monument to the Roman Empire in Britain, Hadrian’s Wall portrays a stark image of a remote corner of an empire fraught with conflict.
The wall runs across the narrow neck of England, over hill and dale from the mouth of the Tyne River to the Solway Firth. Building the wall was a massive engineering project. For more than 250 years it stood as Rome’s northern frontier. In places the wall is very well preserved. In others it has withered into the landscape. Some parts have been plundered for building stone so that nothing remains.
It was the Roman emperor Hadrian who ordered the wall to be built. He came to Britain in 122 AD to initiate construction and brought over his friend Platorius Nepos as governor to take charge of the project.
The Romans had been in Britain for 80 years, but total conquest of the island eluded them. Hadrian decided to abandon further attempts at conquering the barbarian northern tribes and opted to mark the boundaries of the empire with an artificial barrier where no natural ones existed. Such an obstacle would not stop a determined army, but it would impede the movement of men and carts.
A section of the wall would run to the north along an existing road now known as the Stanegate on which there were already forts. From what is now Newcastle to the River Irthing it would be a stonewall with parapets. From the Irthing to Bowness it would be made of turf. In front of the wall was a ditch, except where the crags made this unnecessary. Every Roman mile there was a gateway, guarded by a little fort called a mile castle, holding perhaps 12 men. Between these were observation towers or turrets holding about six soldiers.
While the wall was being built, and Nepos was still governor, it was decided to build large forts on the wall itself at regular intervals. These projected to the north to facilitate the deployment of troops into hostile territory.
Hadrian’s Wall has become a highly popular hiking venue for locals and visitors alike. The preferred section is the 20-kilometer stretch between Sewingshields and Greenhead. Public trails are well marked, but most of the land is privately owned so rights of way must be followed. Much of the trail is rough so suitable footwear must be worn.
Most of Hadrian’s Wall is not well situated for public transport. A bus service runs from Newcastle to Carlisle, taking visitors within walking distance of the wall at several points. Trains also run between these cities. Bardon Mill and Haltwhistle stations serve the central section of the wall, but both entail a five-kilometer walk or taxi ride.
If visiting by car, most of the major sites along the wall are on or near the B6318, the old military road. All the sites are well sign posted. For more information visit the official Hadrian’s Wall Country website.
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